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'It's not over until it's over': Mother-of-two says she will stay positive in the face of incurable cancer diagnosis

Two years after she was given the clear from doctors, the cancer returned, this time spreading to other organs.

Deirdre was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2017.
Deirdre was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2017.

“IT’S LIKE THE rug has been pulled from underneath you and you have to start living and working in a different way,” Deirdre Kelleher Dowling said of her experience being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. 

“It means you’re probably going to have a shorter lifespan than you thought you would. It’s like a slap in the face. That’s how I felt initially.”

Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) occurs when breast cancer cells break away and spread to another part of the body. Around 30% of breast cancer survivors will be told they have metastatic breast cancer. 

Deirdre was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 following a routine mammogram. 

In 2015, following three lumpectomies to remove the tumour, she was given the all-clear and returned to her job as a nursing lecturer at a Dublin university, while continuing to attend an annual mammogram screening. 

“The mammogram in 2017 was fine, nothing showed up, but then in 2018 they found a lump in my other breast, and this time it was a different type of cancer. Then they did more scans and found out it was in my lungs too.

“I got an awful shock when I heard that,” she said. “When they said it was in my other breast, I thought ‘well we can do surgery and have it removed’ but when they did those scans, I knew there was no going back from this.”

The mother-of-two was put on a new treatment which will continue to be reviewed and altered to limit the effects of the cancer. 

Nobody said to me ‘you’re dying’. It’s not a question that you’re dying, it’s that you’re never going to get better.

“When you go to get checked for breast cancer, people get treated and then move on with their lives. 

“I was devastated when I got this news but I feel when you hit rock bottom the only way is up.”


Deirdre, although diagnosed with an incurable cancer, said she has tried to remain positive for her own sake and that of her family’s. 

She attends a positive living group every four to six weeks run by the Marie Keating Foundation, where she meets with other women who faced a similar diagnosis. 

I do have my not-so-good days but I know that’s not permanent, and if I’m not feeling great today, I’ll probably be OK tomorrow. 

“And I am sad that it happened. There’s no getting away from that, and it sucks. But what I’m trying to do is build on that with things to look forward to. We have a nice holiday coming up, a weekend away planned, a wedding at Christmas and I want to be well for that. 

“I have two girls in their teens who have very much been on a journey, and very much know how I’m doing. They know what’s happening and that it’s not all doom and gloom.”

Deirdre credits new treatments and a strong support network as the reason she remains optimistic for the future. 

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“There’s a lot more information out there now. Years ago it might have been that you’re diagnosed, you go home and that’s the end but with all the treatment that is available, it gives you hope.

“All this time, I’ve been very supported. I have a very good family support system. I have a strong marriage and I’m grateful for that… with the positive living group I was able to get in touch with people who are in the same situation as myself.”


While she doesn’t see the diagnosis as a “terminal” diagnosis, she said she has had to prioritise some things “which I thought I would do in my retirement”. 

There is an element of this where you have been giving this time to regroup and do things that you’ll do when you retire.

“I need time to catch up with myself and try to sleep and look after myself. There is all these treatments and that keeps changing, and things move at such a rapid pace that it’s never over until it’s over. 

“If you google metastatic breast cancer it will say you have five years but people do live for 10 or 15 years.”

This Sunday 13 October is Metastatic Cancer Awareness day with advocates and charities aiming to raise awareness of the illness and treatments available. 

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